Atlanta United 101
Atlanta United are in just the team’s third year of competition and are already the defending MLS Cup champions. They have become synonymous for having packed and boisterous crowds at Mercedes-Benz Stadium and scoring nearly at will game-to-game. With 70 goals scored in each season, they have led Major League Soccer in scoring since their inception. Forward, Josef Martinez is the league’s single-season goalscoring king, after netting 31 goals last year.
Three games into this season, Atlanta has yet to tally a mark in the win column. How could that be, you ask? The answer is simple, they are in a transition period under new head coach, Frank de Boer. The former Ajax player and coach has the unfortunate task of filling the very massive shoes of Tata Martino. When Martino left to coach the Mexican National Team, one of the leagues most sought-after coaching opportunities came open. De Boer now he has the thankless task of replacing the man who won it all.
United at a Glance:
Leading Scorer: Josef Martinez / Ezequiel Barco each have one goal.
Assists Leader: Julian Gressel (2)
How Atlanta United Play
According to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s United beat writer, Doug Roberson, Atlanta will come out in a 4-3-3 formation, with a starting lineup of: Brad Guzan (GK), Franco Escobar (RB), Miles Robinson (CB), Leandro Gonzalez-Pirez (CB), Brek Shea (LB), Darlington Nagbe (M), Eric Remedi (M), Julian Gressel (M), Hector Villalba (F), Josef Martinez (F), Ezequiel Barco (F)
Atlanta is the defending MLS Cup champions but are in the midst of being re-tooled. The tactical differences between previous head coaches of Martino and de Boer will take time to implement. The majority of the MLS championship roster has returned, though starting midfielder Miguel Almiron moved on to the greener pastures of Newcastle United and defender Greg Garza was dealt to FC Cincinnati. Beyond those two, the key pillars of the squad are still intact.
It is evident that de Boer is seeking to execute the prototypical Dutch style of soccer, which generally incorporates a 4-3-3 or 3-4-3 formation. The foundation of this style is being possession heavy and attack oriented. Defensively, the Dutch are patient and wait to press until an opposing player becomes isolated with the ball.
In their last outing, Atlanta battled Philadelphia Union to a 1-1 draw. Though they were a mere few inches away from scoring a second goal, as a beautiful ball from captain Michael Parkhurst to the on-running foot of Martinez pinged off of the crossbar. As the season labors on, those close calls will likely find their target.
Brad Guzan, a U.S. Men’s National Team goalkeeper, is beginning to show his age. Inconsistency in play and subpar decision-making have been increasingly present in his game.
Offensively, do not let the lack of goal production thus far, fool you. Atlanta is a team stocked with fire power. Martinez’s goal-scoring prowess is well documented. Midfielder Hector Villalba has scored double-digit goals in previous seasons, Darlington Nagbe is a roamer in the midfield, capable of creating chances for teammates and finishing himself. Julian Gressel brings a high work rate and sneaky offensive skills. Former U.S. international, Brek Shea is an offensive-minded player who can bomb up and down the sidelines, whether as an outside back or winger.
How the Crew Win
The Crew will see the return of Wil Trapp, Gyasi Zardes Waylon Francis, Justin Meram and (likely) Zack Steffen. Steffen is coming off of a minor knee injury and is expected to be in the pipes this weekend. The spine of the team should be solidified with Steffen, Zardes and Trapp back in play, which will make every player in black and gold this Saturday better for it. Without those two, we saw a discombobulated Crew team falter in Philadelphia. Anticipate a more organized Columbus squad this go around.
Furthermore, the Crew has battled and won against a similar style of opponent already this season. FC Dallas, the Black & Gold’s opponent two weeks ago, could be considered a poor man’s version of Atlanta. They play an attack-oriented 4-3-3 formation, with three attackers who can fly when in the offensive-third of the field. In that match, the Crew was adamant about playing in 4-4-2 blocks defensively. Perhaps, that is applied in this contest as well. Historically, United has been less meticulous out of the back than this recent Dallas team. Atlanta has the ability quick countering ability to ignite the offense in a matter of two or three passes. A tactical difference the Crew will undoubtedly be wary of.
Last week’s outing against the Union was a learning moment for coach head coach Caleb Porter, and a much-needed wake up call for everyone in Crew Nation. Including the preseason, the Crew were undefeated under Porter. Such early success can often disguise faults and weak points in a club. The Crew have had this week to self-reflect and recalibrate. Columbus can win if they man-mark Josef Martinez wherever he goes in the attacking third of the field and if they score in the run of play, which has been troublesome thus far into the 2019 season.